Column: Lance Armstrong's downfall now complete
PARIS (AP) — There was an Armstrong who walked on the moon and another, Louis, who sang sweet jazz. But Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France winner?
That never happened.
"He deserves to be forgotten in cycling," the sport's boss, Pat McQuaid, said Monday as he erased Armstrong's victories from the record books of the race that made him a global celebrity.
It felt — and was — truly momentous. The crash-landing in a spectacular plunge from grace. The moment of impact between the truth and years of lies. Official acceptance — first from the head of cycling's governing body, then from the boss of the Tour — that the fairytale of a cancer survivor who won the world's most storied bicycle race was, in fact, the biggest fraud in the history of sport.
"A landmark day for cycling," McQuaid, president of the International Cycling Union, said at a news conference in Geneva. "Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling."
In Paris, at another press call, Tour director Christian Prudhomme added: "Lance Armstrong is no longer the winner of the Tour de France from 1999-2005."
Sports stars have imploded before. There were Marion Jones' tears outside a U.S. District Court in 2007 after the three-time Olympic champion pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about her use of performance-enhancing drugs. There are dark stains of doping on plenty of other big names, past and present, in other sports, too. Sports and doping have long gone together, because as long as people are trying to win, there'll always be some who will do that by cheating.
But no sporting icon peddled a tale quite like Armstrong's: the Texan from a broken home who became a world champion, then was struck down by testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain, but who still rolled up in 1999 at the Tour, a three-week test so tough that it has defeated many men who didn't endure gut-wrenching chemotherapy and carry the scars of tumor-removing surgery.
The previous year, 1998, had been a disaster for the Tour — with a major drug bust and police raids at the race. Armstrong — bold, brash and, as it turned out, unbeatable — seemed a year later like a fresh start. His back-from-the-dead story brought new interest and life for cycling, and the Tour that had been sickened by riders' rampant use of a banned blood-booster, EPO, then undetectable. For other people affected by the disease he survived, Armstrong became the living embodiment of the idea that willpower can overcome any obstacle — be it cancer or the Alps.
"I hope this sends out a fantastic message to all the cancer patients and survivors around the world," Armstrong said on winning his first Tour, setting the tone and framing his story for the years to come. "We can return to what we were before — and be even better."
Armstrong was, in short, a survivor and a winner. That combination made him appear like a monument to many, both in and outside cycling. It made him rich, friendly with presidents and pop stars, and enabled his Livestrong cancer-fighting foundation to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. It also gave him influence and a moral high ground he used to silence and belittle critics who dared to suggest he was doping, that his story was too good to be true.
"I've done too many good things for too many people," Armstrong said in own defense in 2010.
The doping doubts were always there from 1999, even if too few sports administrators, sponsors, journalists and other riders paid sufficient attention to them. A positive urine test for banned corticosteroids at the 1999 Tour was explained away and covered up by one of Armstrong's doctors, a former team masseuse testified years later. A book in 2004 where the same masseuse said she gave Armstrong makeup to hide needle marks on his arm was met with writs from Armstrong's lawyers and furious denials from him. In 2005, a French newspaper reported that laboratory researchers in Paris found EPO in Armstrong's urine samples from the 1999 Tour, test results that raised yet more suspicions but couldn't be used to sanction him.
"Witch hunt," Armstrong said.
That became one of his favored phrases.
It was the same one he used in 2010, when federal investigator Jeff Novitzky dug into doping in cycling and Armstrong's role in it.
It was the phrase Armstrong directed at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency — the organization that eventually nailed him, succeeding where everyone else and hundreds of drug tests failed.
USADA did that by getting former teammates to talk. Novitzky's investigation, abruptly shut down by U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. with no explanation this February, at least seems to have had the merit of helping to loosen tongues.
The Feds "placed a gun and a badge on the table," said McQuaid, and the Great Wall of Silence that teammates had maintained around Armstrong and their shared secrets crumbled.
USADA's 1,000-page dossier, published Oct. 10, was damning because it included affidavits from 11 of Armstrong's former teammates — page after page of testimony about injections with EPO and banned blood transfusions, of being supplied with EPO by Armstrong and seeing him inject, of being pressured to dope and bullied by Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel, the team manager and brains behind Armstrong's Tour wins.
The weight, the detail, the precision of the testimonies was together so much more compelling than the fact that Armstrong, as he so liked to remind everyone, never failed a drug test. In fact, it helped elucidate how that could be.
Former teammates explained how they used subterfuge to beat testers. Tyler Hamilton said they simply hid, not answering the door if a sample collector showed up. Doctors helped with dosages and injection methods so drugs would flush quickly out of their systems. There was no test, and still isn't, to show that riders were re-injecting themselves with bags of their own blood. Bruyneel seemed to know in advance when testers were coming, Jonathan Vaughters and David Zabriskie testified.
USADA's report looked so complete that for McQuaid and his federation to ignore the evidence would have been almost unthinkable. There was speculation before his Monday press call about what McQuaid would say. In hindsight, however, it was clear he had little choice but to rubber-stamp USADA's conclusions, ban Armstrong and take away his Tour wins, white-out all that yellow — the color of the Tour leader's maillot jaune jersey — that he had expropriated as his color and that of Livestrong.
"I was sickened by what I read in the USADA report," McQuaid said.
Now, on the wreckage of the demolition of the Armstrong myth, cycling has to rebuild its credibility. There's a mountain of still unanswered questions about who else may have facilitated doping in the Armstrong years, who else was involved, whether they should be encouraged to confess and how that might be done. Can McQuaid's federation, long suspected of being cozy with Armstrong, be trusted to clean up? Should top riders be chaperoned 24/7 at the next Tour to ensure they're not still trying to beat what McQuaid said is now an improved anti-doping system?
"Cycling has a future," McQuaid said. Quoting John Kennedy, he said cycling's biggest crisis is also "an opportunity."
But this didn't feel like the time or place for that — not when the frightening enormity of the past is still sinking in.
Armstrong — a pariah in the sport that turned him from a nobody into a somebody and, now, back into a nobody again.
"This is the story of a real talent who lost his way," said Prudhomme, the Tour director.
That downfall cannot, should not, be forgotten.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester